Monday, June 27, 2011

The Same Me

How much of you can you trace to the source? Your interests, your hobbies, your dreams; can you pin down the moment they became yours? How much of you has come from forgotten interactions? What has molded you?

The summer after my junior year in high school I got the opportunity to spend a week in Washington, D.C. as part of a program where students from around the country spend a week seeing the sights, discussing politics and current events, and even meeting some of the nation's leaders. My week of Presidential Classroom was in June of 1991. I have generally regarded it as just a fun and interesting week. I don’t usually have any tales to tell or interesting anecdotes. "I saw Al Gore. From very far away." A fun week as I recall, but not one packed with life-altering experiences that "made me the person I am today." Or was it?

My memories of that week are fragmented. I no longer hold a coherent sequence of events in my head. What remains are pieces. Bits of conversations. Colors. Remembered feelings. Nothing stands out as striking. But if I look closely at those fragments, I see me. I see the me that has always been and the me who, while nearly an adult, was still so very young.

Pieces of memories. Like dreams that don't flow smoothly from one image to the next.
  • We are divided into “caucuses." I have no idea what this word means. I assume it’s some sort of group. I am not about to ask.
  • We play a game with a beach ball with questions written on it. You throw the ball to someone in the group, they answer the first question they see when they catch the ball. A girl catches the ball. She reads, “Tell us something about your home town that we don’t know.” She thinks. “I’m from Chicago. I guess… it’s not really that windy.” I really want the ball. I really want to add that it’s not called “The Windy City” because of actual wind. The question I get was not about my home town. It doesn't really matter. I never would have actually said that anyway.
  • I have three roommates. We exchange addresses. One comments that she will put us on her Christmas card list. She tells an story that involves her not understanding how you can say you’re "good friends" with someone if you don’t have their address, meaning you don’t even send them a Christmas card. My mother never sent out Christmas cards. I don't remember if we ever even received any Christmas cards. I have sent out Christmas cards every year since then.
  • Someone asked me where I would be going to college. I responded, "U of I." As I said it, I realized that this was probably not helpful to people not from Illinois.
  • We visited the National Mall. There is a conversation about a boy who was confused by our plans for the day. "He thought we were going to a shopping mall!" At that moment, I realized we would not be going to a mall later in the day. I, of course, said nothing. They thought that guy was an idiot. I laughed along. I still didn't get why it was called a mall.
  • We spent a day at the Smithsonian. A cute boy in my group named Aaron was very into planes. We spent a lot of time at the Air and Space museum. As he named every plane, I thought he got even cuter. I have loved the name Aaron ever since. I threw it in the hopper as potential baby names for both of my pregnancies.
  • We saw the hope diamond. It was blue. Seemed like a really big deal for a blue diamond. Weren't diamonds supposed to be clear?
  • I met young people who liked country music? I never knew anyone who liked country music. We broke into a group singing of The Gambler. Even northerners know all the words.
  • Bob Dole spoke to us. It was exciting. He was someone we had actually heard of. I couldn't think of a single question to ask him. Instead, the girl sitting next to me and I wrote notes on my notepad throughout his speech.
  • We visited the senators and representatives from our states. Illinois' congressmen were largely unavailable that week. We met one. He talked the entire time about softball. I did not play softball. I was bored.
  • We took the Metro (aka subway). We were told repeatedly: “Stand to the right. Walk to the left.” This seemed brilliant. Why didn't everyone in the world know this? After one day, we, too, were annoyed with the tourists who stood on the left. I still am.
  • The Metro escalators were unbelievably tall. On one trip, the line for the up escalator was incredibly long. We saw that the other up escalator wasn't moving. Some of us decided to walk up the escalator. At some point, it became clear how enormous this escalator was. We all made it, though. I wonder what I would think of that escalator now. Would it seem so much smaller now, in the way that everything from your youth seemed so large? Or would I stare in amazement that my youthful body was ever so fit?
  • In the basement of the Capital Building, security closed off the hallways and made us wait behind temporary barriers like those that coral the masses at theme parks into orderly lines. In the distance, we watched Vice President Al Gore exit an elevator.
One week. A week that if not for the unfamiliarity of the surroundings, would have faded into memory nothingness. But because the faces of that week inhabit no other of my memories, I can see specific moments, moments that appeared insignificant, but left a lasting impression on the person I became. I can pinpoint to the inspiration for my annual Christmas card marathon and the reason why I lobbied twice to name a son Aaron. I can also see the me that existed before my trip and after. The me that was so insecure, hoping that no one realized how much I didn't know, but always wanting to correct other people’s mistakes to show off the things I did know. The me that thought that brains were sexy. The me that could scale a wall of escalators. That me, is the same me…without the escalator climbing prowess of my youth.